April 10, 2016

Easter 3   April 10, 2016   (Ps 30, Revelation 5:11-14, Acts 9:1-6) John 21

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I had a picture of a fish singing praises to God taped to my refrigerator for several years – a worship bulletin cover, drawn by seven-or-eight-year-old at the time Todd, in our Sunday School, in our small Methodist church in the tiny village of Adamant Vermont. Todd’s picture was inspired by a scripture lesson the kids had studied – it cited chapter and verse, and it may well have been from our reading from Revelation today. The picture had a fish under water, singing, with a bubble caption (like in the comics) with the fish saying, “Praise the Lord!”

In our reading today from Revelation it is written, “I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea… singing, “To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever…”

And when all the world seems in perpetual uproar…I find it deeply comforting to remember – the fish in the sea are praising God through it all. And since the fish  are singing praises to the Lord, I guess it’s no wonder that when Jesus says ‘cast your nets on the other side’ he knows the fish will be there. Jesus knows the fish are near, and he knows they’ll do what he says… Because he knows they’re singing to him. (And for all we know, he may be singing back to them, in a voice we can’t yet hear). Telling fish to swim into the net of the seven fishermen who have been out all night without a bite.

John’s gospel notoriously begins with opening lines that remind us of the first beginning… Saying “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” And the first commandment for humans in the first chapter of the first book of the bible, not long after the first word – “let there be light” – is to be fruitful and have dominion over the fish of the sea (Genesis 1, verse 28). Psalm 8 reminds us God has given us dominion over the fish, over all that passes along the paths of the seas. Though, as the letter to the Hebrews points out – we don’t see all the fish of the sea submitting to human fishermen yet. That only happens, Hebrews says, in Christ. And even when we’re in Christ, having dominion over the fish depends on hearing Jesus – when he’s calling – telling us – cast our nets on the other side of the boat.

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As a confessed obsessive-compulsive fisherman I have of course spent considerable time studying, contemplating, and doing field research related to today’s gospel reading, in which disciples are personally guided by Jesus into a huge catch of 153 (yes, somebody counted) – 153 big fish. As a student of the gospels and as a fisherman, I can’t help noticing how fishermen figure prominently in all four gospels.

Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s gospels all tell of Jesus calling fishermen as his first-round-draft-choices – calling them from boats and nets to come, follow him, fish for people. Only John of the four gospel writers omits that scene. And only John includes this glorious post-resurrection fishing trip we’ve just read, which closely resembles the call of the fishermen, early on in Luke’s gospel – where Jesus first preaches from the boat of Simon Peter, then, when he’s done teaching, tells Peter ‘put out into deep water for a catch.’ Peter says ‘Master we’ve fished all night without catching anything, but if you say so….’ They put out into deep water, let down the nets, haul in a catch of so many fish the nets start to tear.

John and Luke know each other, love each other, well enough to be sharing and comparing fishing stories. As Luke begins his telling of the calling of disciples with a catch of many fish. And John closes his gospel with some of the same fishermen catching another haul of many big fish. And like any really good fishing story, this story full of big fish… is really not mainly about fish…

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If we’re at all familiar with fishing and the gospels, we’re not surprised to hear Simon Peter the fisherman telling us he is going out fishing. When fishermen have serious thinking, praying, and contemplating to do, we tend to want to go fishing… And Simon Peter for sure has some seriously heavy thinking and praying to do…

Just a few days ago, remember, Simon Peter, on a cold dark night, was warming himself by a charcoal fire. And three times that night, while Jesus was on trial, the night before his crucifixion, Peter said that he was not one of Jesus’ disciples. (John 18.)

It’s not a trivial detail that the only other place in the New Testament where a charcoal fire is mentioned is here in John 21. A few nights ago three servants of the high priest asked Peter three times by the charcoal fire – ‘you’re not one of that man’s Jesus’ disciples are you?’ ‘Are you not also one of that man’s followers?’ and ‘didn’t I see you with him in the garden?’ And three times Peter said “I am not.” “I am not.” And ‘no you didn’t see me…’

Now, a few days after the last supper – gathered around another charcoal fire, at the first breakfast – Jesus asks Peter, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?’ Peter says, ‘Yes Lord, you know I love you.’ Jesus says ‘Feed my lambs.’

A second time Jesus asks Peter, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ A second time Peter answers – ‘Yes, Lord, you know I love you.’ ‘Tend my sheep,’ Jesus says.

A third time, Jesus says, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ Peter, feeling hurt now, as Jesus asks a third time, says, ‘Lord, you know everything, you know I love you.’ ‘Feed my sheep,’ Jesus says.

‘Truly I tell you, when you were younger you went wherever you wanted,  did whatever you wanted. From now on you’ll be going where you may not want to go, doing things you may not choose to do.’ He said this, the gospel writer tells us, to indicate Peter would later be laying down his life for Jesus and the gospel…

The gospel writer also tells this story – so we can make sense of the rest of the story… Of Simon Peter, who denied he knew Jesus three times in one night… Re-commissioned three times now in one morning…

To continue to serve as a leader in the church. Commissioned to be a witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ forever…With the keys to the kingdom entrusted to him…

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When I was younger… I remember sitting around a fire with fishing friends on a chilly night in April… Near the banks of the Willoughby River in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont…Trading fish stories, camping in an old Volkswagen camper bus. I remember telling a version of this story of Jesus and the fishermen and the catch of many big fish…

The next morning I hooked a steelhead rainbow trout that leaped high out of the water, shook it’s head, said a quick good-bye to the hook….

Which was perhaps also a parable about how long I stayed on the line as a faithful disciple in those days… I was enjoying our little country church in Adamant, which was always warm and welcoming, and not much was asked of me then, just to take a turn every now and then in helping with Sunday School. What was not to like?

I was not exactly planning to leave my day job to go follow Jesus…anytime soon… As the first fishing disciples had done…and…

Jesus probably had to ask me more than three times if I loved him… to get me to hear him and eventually to get me following… Which, the older and hopefully, wiser, I get… the more I also realize…  Even going where I don’t naturally want to go…and doing what I don’t naturally want to do – leads to blessings – if, that is, it is Jesus talking.

There  are also some things I don’t want to do and places I don’t want to go for good reason – because I’ve heard Jesus tell me not to go there, not to do that. And coming or going, doing or not doing – the bottom lines is – anything Jesus asks of us is always going to be all for the good…

And now the more I get used to following Jesus, the more I realize… the story speaks to each of us in unison with the same message of God’s abundant love…And, at the same time, the word of God speaks to each of us in the particularities of where each of us is in our walk with Jesus…And where we are together in our walk with Jesus.

Sometimes I hear this story as a gentle but firm rebuke from Jesus. A calling back to focusing life around Jesus.

Other times I hear this story as actually an invitation to go fishing again with Jesus…in closer fellowship and communing with Jesus and friends and fish…

Always, of course, the story is about following Jesus… Sometimes, as with Peter, it’s about having to be told three times… Other times, on the best of days… it’s about following without having to be told…

Which, here at the very end of John’s gospel, is the path we’re invited to walk in… The path of the beloved disciple…The gospel narrator… Who is the one walking behind Jesus and Peter as they stroll along the beach… The disciple of whom Peter asks, “Lord, what about him?”

The one who has written this beloved gospel – so we may believe –

Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Savior of the world – and in believing and in following we may have life in his name…

John’s gospel also reminds us – there are also many other things Jesus did – and if everyone of them were to be written down – the world itself would not be able to hold all the books that would have to be written… About what Jesus has done and is still doing…

So the story continues. And we’re all still in it.

And all the fish of the sea are here in the story with us, still, as it was in the beginning…Singing praises to God and Jesus wholeheartedly… Reminding us of the great abundance of joy and peace and grace we enjoy in the presence of our gracious God, our risen Savior… Reminding us we too ought to be singing praises! …with heaven and nature and all the fish of the sea…

Thanks be to God.  Amen.